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Northern Ireland aim to scratch friendly itch with Scotland

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill has NEVER won a friendly as Northern Ireland manager. The record in this department reads: played eight, drew three, lost five, 16 goals conceded and three scored.

The goals came in a 3-3 draw at Windsor Park against Finland, who just happen to be Northern Ireland's opponents on Sunday for a Euro 2016 qualifier which will be the most important international staged in Belfast for years.

It will also be Northern Ireland's first Sunday match at Windsor to add an historic twist.

There are points at stake at the weekend.

Not so tonight at Hampden Park against Scotland in what will be O'Neill's ninth friendly in charge.

Even so, the Northern Ireland boss wants to build momentum ahead of the crunch clash with Finland.

The M word, used a lot in modern day sport, has been crucial in the Euro 2016 campaign so far, with Kyle Lafferty and Co winning their first game against Hungary in September and gaining so much confidence from that that they followed it up with Group F victories over the Faroe Islands and Greece.

Those successes have provided genuine hope amongst fans that the country's long wait to reach the finals of a major tournament is coming to an end.

There was defeat in November in Romania, but Northern Ireland remain in a strong position, second in the group. If they stay there they'll go to France next year.

This week the Northern Ireland squad have been based in a plush hotel and country club outside Edinburgh, the city where O'Neill and his family live.

There's been a relaxed mood in the camp with the manager knowing the intensity levels will dramatically increase once they fly in to Belfast tomorrow ahead of the crunch weekend clash.

Asked if it mattered whether the visitors won or lost in Glasgow tonight, O'Neill admitted it wasn't the most important thing in the world, but was still moved to say: "I still think it matters, at the end of the day there's no substitute for continuing to get good results and building momentum."

O'Neill knows all too well how the Northern Ireland public have reacted to their national team's change in fortunes - in the last campaign they lost to little Luxembourg and won just once in 10 matches.

What has also delighted him is how club managers have dealt with the success. O'Neill takes great pride in changing perceptions. Once upon a time club bosses were pulling Northern Ireland players away from international duty like there was no tomorrow. No longer.

"The nice thing is when you go into a campaign and you win games and have momentum everyone is totally focused on it as opposed to not getting off to that start and not having the incentive of qualification," said O'Neill.

"It becomes easier from my point of view and it becomes easier for the players.

"They are always under pressure from their clubs, but now clubs and club managers realise the significance of these games for us so they've become more accommodating as well."

When O'Neill was losing World Cup qualifiers, the poor friendly results were used as a stick to beat him with. Now that his team are putting points on the board, the friendlies don't matter so much, though that won't stop the 2,000 Northern Ireland supporters travelling to Hampden urging their side on to earn a victory against the Scots for the first time since 1974.

The last time Northern Ireland scored at Hampden was exactly 34 years ago when Billy Hamilton was on target.

And get this... the last time Northern Ireland won a friendly was on this date in 2008, against Georgia. O'Neill's men might just be ready to scratch a seven-year itch.

It would be the perfect way to warm up for Finland.

Belfast Telegraph


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